Most travelers expect to encounter cultural differences when they first travel to another continent. And yet, when confronted with these differences, they are always caught off guard. I had my own culture shock as a European immigrant in America! If this is your first trip to Europe and you want to know what to expect, these travel tips will help make the most of your time there.
Travel Tips -7 Things That Will Surprise You in Europe
• Nothing Is Complimentary
America is literally the land of free: free refills, free shopping carts, free bred and butter in the restaurants, free ketchup at McDonalds, free toilet paper in the public bathrooms, etc. etc.
You don’t realize how many freebies we get in the USA until you travel to Europe. In fact, we’ve got so accustomed to getting complimentary things, that we began expecting them everywhere we travel.
• Siesta Time is Sacred
Nothing is more shocking for the first time visitor to Europe than this siesta time. Depending on what countries in Europe you visit, you may come across a more or less sacred siesta time.
In countries like Spain, Italy, Greece, or even Germany siesta is so rigorously observed, that you should count on wandering the streets with no place to enter for a cup of coffee. Especially in the rural, or less touristy areas!
I will never forget that time when my husband was locked up for 3 hours in a botanical garden in Ezé Villages. My sister and I left the garden a few minutes before they closed to look at some shops in the village. When we realized he was locked in, we got really scared. We didn’t know what to do, so we went the the pub next-door to ask for help.
The pub owner smiled and explained to us that “it’s lunch time and the garden is now closed.” “How about my husband? Can you call anybody and ask them to unlock the gate?” I ask, hoping he will resonate with my plea and maybe call the person who had the key.
After all, this was a small village where everybody knew everybody. “No need to call, they will reopen in three hours, don’t worry.” I was shocked to realized how seriously some countries in Europe take their siesta.
No matter how popular siesta may be among the locals, for tourists and visitors it’s always a nuisance . Not many people expect to find the gift shop or clothing boutique closed for two-three hours right in the middle of the day.
• To Use a Bathroom is a Privilege
Coming from America, one might assume that public restrooms should be free and easily accessible for everyone, rather than a privilege. But Europeans seem to have a different opinion on the matter.
Free toilets in Europe are about as rare as the hen’s teeth. No wonder public urination in subways stations and public parks is through the roof!
If this is your first time in Europe, make sure to always carry some small change in your pocket. In case nature calls.
Also, never pass up a bathroom, even if you used one just half an hour earlier. This is an important tip to keep in mind when you travel to Europe.
You may find free bathrooms in department stores, museums, theaters or cinemas, but even there you’ll have to tip the cleaner. T
here are also free bathrooms in restaurants, cafés and bars, but unless you are a customer you can’t use them.
You should also know that paid restrooms don’t necessarily mean soap, water, towels, or even toilet paper. In fact, you might simply just find a hole in the ground flanked by two platforms for your feet. If you come across a “Turkish Toilet” don’t panic, just squat.
• Nude vs. Prude
If you travel to Europe in summer, get ready for some nudity. And don’t think just billboard advertisements, newsstand magazines, or TV programs. Of course, you are not very likely to see naked people walking down the street, (although that’s not totally impossible either), but there are some places where clothing is optional, like in some German saunas.
If you visit a public bath, hang out at a beach or in a park , you will discover that Europeans are very relaxed about nudity. On a beautiful sunny day in Germany, for instance, nakedness abounds.
From the public parks in big cities, to the countryside lakes and mountain trails, people of all ages find it very normal to shed their clothes off.
• Europeans Smoke Like Chimneys
It’s hard to imagine there’s anybody in the world today who hasn’t heard of the damaging effects of smoking. So much has been discussed and debated, researched and published, analyzed and advertised!
But Europe missed the news. In 2015, lung cancer death rates among European women overtook those of breast cancer. But no health warnings or statistics have been enough to keep Europeans from their cigarettes.
In Europe people smoke almost everywhere: restaurants, cafés, on the streets, at home, at the theater… Smoking is a sort of a culture: you can’t take your coffee without a cigarette, or enjoy a night out without smoking. Many bar and café owners fear that banning smoking will scare their customers away.
Although in many European restaurants indoor smoking is prohibited, the patios and terraces are still jam-packed with smokers. When I travel to Europe I am constantly exposed to suffocating smoke. My eyes start burning, my throat gets itchy and I always end up with headaches. But when I mention my dismay over the heavy smoking, people get very defensive.
• Crossing the Street Is at Your Own Risk
If traveling for the first time to Europe keep in mind that drivers don’t always yield to pedestrians. In my experience, people in Western European countries are more likely to stop at pedestrian crossing.
But the further East you move, the more cross-the-street-at-your-own-risk policy applies. In fact in countries like Romania, the red light doesn’t matter too much. Even if you are crossing at green light, drivers who violate the law will honk at you to move out of the way.
• Dinner Is a Late Night Affair
If you are planning to visit Europe, get used to eating dinner late at night. Unlike in the USA where around 10 p.m. restaurants are ushering the last customers out, in Europe dinner starts around 8 p.m. or even later.
In some countries like Spain, most restaurants don’t even open till 9:00 p.m. If you get hungry earlier, you’ll have to settle for some tapas in a bar.
Generally, all mediterranean cultures tend to eat dinner very late, sometimes as late as 11 p.m.
Many of these cultural differences may not come as a surprise if you traveled to Europe before. Still, every time I go back and rediscover some of them, I am dazed. No free toilets? Oh, I don’t have to tip 15-20% like in America?
Of course there are many others to choose from, so feel free to just type in your preferences once you get on the GetYourGuide website. They are one of the best tour companies in Europe and offer very competitive prices.
READ NEXT: Best European Cities to Visit in December
Travel Tips to Save you Money in Europe
• Don’t exchange money in the airport
Airports, train stations, or tourist areas have the worst exchange rates. But if you look for an exchange office outside these areas, your hard earned money can go a way longer way. If no exchange booths are around, use the ATM machines throughout the city.
• Consider using public transportation
Driving a car Europe is an expensive and inconvenient complication. None of these European cities were built with cars in mind, so the roads are crowded and full of restrictions.
Rather than worrying about parking fees, one way streets, and pedestrian zones, consider using public transportation during your 2 weeks in Europe.
• Travel by train, or use budget airlines
Train travel through Europe is one of the best ways to see the continent. The rail network is extremely developed and train service is very reliable. For longer distances, flying one of the many European airlines is also a great option.
There are over a dozen budget airlines in Europe that fly anywhere on the continent for unbelievably low prices. They charge extra for seats and luggage, but even so you can fly for as low as €30-40/one way.
• Dress comfortably
Dressing comfortably when you travel to Europe is very important, but avoid looking like a tourist. Not sure how to blend in with the locals? Read my guide about how to dress like a European.
Also, buy the best shoes you can afford. I can stress enough the importance of wearing comfortable shoes while traveling in Europe. Many of the old European cities are still paved with cobble stones which are very rough on your soles.
• Travel off season
Everyone wants to travel when the weather is stable, but summers can be brutal in Europe: big crowds, expensive accommodations and airfare, busy trains and public transportation and very hot. The best time to visit Europe is in fall and spring, unless you are headed there for the winter holidays. Summers are hot and busy.
Activity ideas for your first trip to Europe
If this is your first big trip on the old continent, you might want to consider some itinerary ideas for two weeks in Europe. Or, if your have already decided what countries to visit, here are some trips you could take locally.
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The most annoying thing when traveling to use public bathrooms is that we have pay for it. And the bathrooms are not even so neat and clean sometimes …
As a European, none of it actually surprises me but I can definitely understand why people from outside of Europe would find these things strange 🙂 Let’s just call it cultural differences, I suppose. It was really interesting to read about these (to us) everyday things from a different perspective. Thank you for sharing this lovely read.
Wow, I had always had the notion that Americans and Europeans are similar lifestyles. But yes, there are bound to be differences, cultural ones definitely. We Indians too love our afternoon siesta, but in the cities, shops are not closed down. Also, I dont think that if someone was locked in some place, he would not be rescued immediately! Anyways, I enjoyed reading your post. It gave a lot of insight into Europe.
These are such useful tips for the first timers. I am surprised by the this siesta time. I didn’t even know how serious they are about it. I completely agree that money exchange at airports, railway station or any tourist places is costly. yes, dress like locals is also very important. I loved the way you have explained every in details.
I live in London and must say some of these points you suggest even shock Londoners travelling to Europe sometimes as it’s not the same on Lindon even though we part of Europe. Toilets for sure are similar in U.K. as well where you may need to pay to use in some public ones. It’s handy to know these things you have mentioned for first time travelers to Europe as some can take you by surprise. Thanks for sharing.
I enjoyed reading this post especially about some stark cultural differences from America and Asia. The Siesta part is so true and I was quite surprised at first hearing about it from friends.
Haha! this was an interesting viewpoint from the eyes of an Amercian. I remember as an Indian when I visited Europe, even I got many pointers to experience coming from a different continent. Yes I do agree on the cultural difference that it plays between America and Europe even though both have similar lifestyles from the eyes of a general Asian. I had fun reading through your article learning about things that can come a pleasant or rude shock too.
Loved reading this fun post about things that may surprise a first time visitor to Europe, things I would mostly not even notice! You are right though that I noticed the inverse when travelling to North America! We were bewildered by the freebies and the refills, yes those refills! Some of that is coming to the UK to an extent, but broadly speaking, people generally like to buy the size they want. The bathroom thing is a bug bear, I hate that one has to pay for public toilets in so many places, definitely a good tip for first timers to carry some coins about for this purpose. The late dinner thing always catches me too when I go to southern western European countries, so much later than we eat in the UK!
So many things I never knew about Europe!
Toilets are not even free? That would be ‘crappy’ for anyone who needed to go really bad and had no change!!
I can’t believe your husband was locked in during the siesta! Oh my gosh, what did he do in the mean time?!
Was it crazy awkward when you were talking to a nude person? I am curious on how that went!
After reading all of this, I am not sure if I would want to spend a ton of time there… Or at least, not now in my life where budget is #1. One day, when money isn’t as large of a factor, I would love to spend time in Europe.
Hahaha, I have to tell you it’s kind of embarrassing to talk to a naked person. It happened to me quite often, when I lived in Europe. People behave so naturally, like there is nothing unusual about it, but in your mind you keep thinking “can’t you notice your ‘things’ are out?”
@Emily One thing everyone should remember is that Europe consists of many countries. Siesta is practised only in a few countries. Nudity is not accepted in the most(or rather is not accepted at all). You won’t see naked people on our streets. Germans like to “go nude” when they are on vacations(while they sunbathing etc.) but it is a matter of statistics, not any rule. As I already pointed out you won’t see naked people on German streets.
It’s true that you won’t see naked people on the streets in Germany. I didn’t say that you will. However, you’ll see quite a few in the park in summer time (Englischer Garten in München, for instance).
Oh dear your husband locked in the garden! You can laugh about it now but at the time it would not have been a laughing matter. Those siesta hours always gets you. You do have to change your eating patterns in Europe, once you get the hang of it, you can understand why especially coming out in the evening later in the middle of summer makes sense. This is a great read Anda!
Thanks, Jane. I’m glad you found it useful.
I feel like I’ll wrote a similar post after my trip to the US, haha. It’s interesting to see a traveler’s perspective on Europe but to be fair, some of these are only true for Western Europe and can surprise people from the East as well, like the siesta (flashbacks from when I arrived starving in Alberobello, Italy and everything was closed). Luckily, for almost two years smoking was banned from restaurants and bars in Romania and now it’s a joy to come home from a night out and not want to burn all your clothes because they stink (and yes, smokers can get extremely defensive)
I agree with you, Vlad. Siesta is not common to all European countries, but it’s definitely a “sacred” time to some of them, hahaha.
Yes sometimes Europe takes a bit of getting used to with all their little quirks but it is all part of the fun. Coming Home to Australia where noone is allowed to smoke anywhere I realise how lucky we are
This is so very true! Though I actually haven’t experienced any of the nudity or been to a country with siesta’s yet. I think the most surprising thing to me on my first visit to Europe was that “nothing is complimentary”. Coming from the land of free refills – and large sizes – I was surprised to find that this isn’t worldwide.
Sally's Tips 4 Trips
So so so true. I’ll never forget seeing one of those squat toilets in a cafe in Paris – it was the first time I had ever seen one I came out in hysterics – but at least they hadn’t asked for 2 francs to go to the loo.
These are all so very true! The biggest complaint my kids had after their first trip to Europe last year was all the smoking. And my daughter could not believe we had to pay to use the bathroom. But it’s great for them to see that things are not always what you are used to! Gives us an appreciation for certain things, right?
You are right, Julie. There are so many things we take for granted here.
Things surprise me here everyday, but the differences are not always bad. I do think that smoking is getting less popular in Europe (at least in some parts) which is good news. In the UK there are a lot of anti-smoking regulations.
It seems that Europe is slightly catching up with the USA on the issue of smoking. Well, it’s about time.
Couldn’t agree more with all of this! Although I giggled a bit about the siesta part! Dd you husband really get locked inside and they seriously would’t open up!? That’s crazy! In Germany they don’t really have siesta so much. I remember about 15 years ago down around the alps, they did but since I’ve been here I haven’t seen it.
Yes, he was locked up, Lolo, but that’s his fault too in a way. My husband always wanders willy-nilly and didn’t hear when the lady at the office told him they will close the gate at noon. My sister and I were outside already when he called to tell us that he was locked up. It ws hilarious because we could actually hear him yelling behind the wall.
The bathroom thing didn’t even occur to me until you mentioned it! Haha, I remember my first time in Spain – it was SO boring in the afternoons when there was nothing to do! On my more recent trips, though, I sensed that things are changing. More shops tend to stay open throughout the day. I also think Spain is an outlier in terms of dinnertime (but then again, I haven’t been to the other Mediterranean countries except for Italy). As far as I recall, in countries like Germany, Switzerland and Austria they had dinner at more “normal” times – but I haven’t been to those countries in years so I could well be misremembering!
Lately, I’ve heard that some restaurants in tourist areas began serving dinner around 7 in order to accommodate the visitors.
I like you are addressing these because, like you mentioned, people who are not used to them may be taken by surprise. Also, based on my experience, not all drinks are going to be served with ice or a glass with ice is provided. And, do not expect big elevators or air conditioning everywhere. People seems to complain about these but they are just differences. Adapt and learn how to deal withe them while you enjoy your trip.
Rob+Ann at TravelLatte(.net)
Love this! Thankfully, we haven’t encountered much of the nudity, and were surprised to find less smoking than we expected. But the bathroom thing. It seems odd from an American perspective, but we found it led to MUCH cleaner facilities in most cases. We’ll pay for that privilege! Fun post, Anda!
I’m not very sure that paid toilets are much cleaner, Rob. In fact, a few times I had some pretty disgusting experiences for my 50 cents.
Let’s just call it cultural differences. I have run into all that you mentioned and more (except perhaps hubby locked in the garden at siesta time). I really enjoy some of it (late night meals in Spain and Europe). I never quite figured out the water hose in toilets in Asia. Then there is expected tipping that is common America but is non-existent down under. Everybody has their own way of doing things.
I’m yet to experience the cultural differences between America and New Zealand, Rhonda. I’m sure there are many.
The late night dinner thing surprises me as I was in Paris during the summer… the sun went down super late and by the time I got around to craving food, lots of restaurants were closed! #TheWeeklyPostcard
When it comes to serving dinner late, Spain beats up all the other countries. They start at 9:30 p.m.
Mary (The World Is A Book)
This is great, Anda! So true about many of them and really a good guide for first timers. We go to Europe almost every year and it still sometimes catches me off guard with the restrooms and the smoking. Those nude photos are funny!
They are, aren’t they? I always wondered what pleasure anybody may find in walking naked in a forest. Well, I guess is the “freedom of expression” that give some people pleasure…
Jessica @ Independent Travel Cats
Free stuff like refills and bathrooms are especially great 😉 But I think Europe is starting to become better with these two things. For instance, Paris has introduced tons of free public toilets which really makes a huge difference for travelers!
It’s been a while since I’ve been in Paris, but I’m glad to hear they have free toilets now.It’s not that I wouldn’t pay 50 cents to be able to use a clean toilet, but sometimes, even though you pay, the toilets are horribly dirty. Besides, if you don’t have small change you may have to walk for a while until you can get some coins. Thanks for reading this, Jessica.
Lately, they have unisex bathrooms, so you are paying and anyone can walk in on you!
Only if you don’t lock your door (lol). They have separate stalls, even though the washing area may be common.